Along with many people, I had been doing it my whole life without thinking about it, but my friend Audrey put a name to it. She likes to construct the perfect bite when eating her dinner—the right amount of each flavor on one fork. The perfect bite brings joy to my heart, but can sometimes prove elusive. So sometimes it helps to make it foolproof. Insalata Caprese (Caprese Salad) creates an ideal and easy opportunity to build the perfect bite. Few things reach perfection as closely as the mighty triumvirate of electric basil, sun-sweet tomato and milky mozzarella, all salted and rich with a drizzle of green olive oil. This salad calls to us like a siren when tomatoes and basil are in their bright prime, at the height of summer.
So it is with mixed joy when I’m at a social event and I see this, one of my favorite salads. The traditional Insalata Caprese—a lovely ring of overlapping red-white-and-green arranged on a plate— is so gorgeous. So perfect. So stressful.
Never mind the pressure placed on the first person (usually the guest) to remove that first bite, disturbing the elegant ring. And where to insert the spoon to get the whole ball rolling? Under the delicate tomato, so ripe it might fall apart? Under the precariously slippery mozzarella? Under the paper-thin basil? Oh, that risky basil. As the passed platter empties, invariably someone upsets the trio balance by losing a basil leaf--either on the table, under their chair, or the place where socks go. Thereafter a lone pair of sliced tomato and mozzarella sits moping on the plate until someone surreptitiously finishes them off in the kitchen while rinsing dishes.
Anyway, if I successfully manage to trap my treasures onto the plate without dripping tomato juice on the tablecloth and flinging basil on my neighbor, then comes the clumsy task of stacking the slippery devils like pancakes in order to slice them into decorous bites. I do not bother to slice if I can get away with it. With each movement I lose more tomato juice. I have the danger of a ragged and bruised basil leaf, politely sliced with the side of my fork as I chat with my friends. Or an even bigger flavor bummer, I didn’t successfully slice the basil at all, so one bite gets all the basil and the other gets none.
At this point you may wonder if I have a life. Do I really think that much about a salad? Turns out I do. Hey, God is in the details; that's what I keep telling myself.
Now. If you love caprese salad and have similar OCD issues with the silent pandemonium it causes, you probably already do what I am about to propose. And if you do, I say, Yay. Isn’t it great? Here's the solution to all of your Caprese problems:
Just serve the things on bread.
Many times I arranged that lovely wreath on a plate for dinner, only to immediately disassemble it and stack the trio on a slice of bread anyway. With this method I’m able to control those flavor ratios. I love you, bread.
Nowadays if I am having friends over or even just feeding my family, I don’t wait for them to assemble their serving of Insalata Caprese on the bread themselves. I just make what I’m going to call Pintxos Caprese. Pintxos (pronounced “PEEN-chos”) are the Basque equivalent of the Spanish tapas. It’s the name for delicious bites of goodness assembled on slices of bread. Nothing like mixing up the languages for a little fun. Seriously, though, I can’t accurately call them bruschetta or crostini, both of which involve grilling or toasting the bread. I’m blanking on an Italian equivalent name to “pintxos,” so if you know it, please do share. After all, a perfect bite deserves a perfect name.
Ingredients (the fresher, the better):
- One crusty-crisp baguette
- 3 or 4 utterly ripe—yet firm—small tomatoes, preferably organic from the garden or a local farmer. Plum tomatoes are often used, but I love flavorful heirloom tomatoes for this
- A handful of unblemished, generous-sized basil leaves
- ½ to ¾ lb. high-quality mozzarella. Traditionally mozzarella made from water buffalo’s milk is used (called mozzarella buffola), but that’s rarely available here in the states. The best cow’s milk mozzarella you can find is lovely, too (called fior di latte in Italy, which appears to translate as “flower of the milk…how lovely!). The cheese you have should be mild, very soft, and stored in brine.
- Best quality extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Kosher salt (and freshly ground pepper, if desired), to taste
- Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella. Rinse and thoroughly dry the basil. Slice the baguette into coins the size of the tomato slices.
- Assemble the pintxos by placing a tomato slice atop each slice of bread, followed by a basil leaf. Arrange a small mozzarella slice over each basil leaf. Here’s some over-thinking: If your mozzarella slices are large in size and you choose not to slice them in half, you can arrange the basil leaf on top to ensure some color, but then the basil loses the “paper weight” of the mozzarella. You can place the mozzarella on the bottom, but the bread soaks up any excess flavorful juice from the tomato, which ensures maximum flavor and keeps the whole thing from becoming too slippy and drippy.
- Arrange the pintxos on a serving plate, drizzle generously with olive oil, and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve immediately.
Makes 15 - 20 pintxos, with some leftover bread to snack on